Chinonye Chukwu’s film about the murder of Emmett Till is both cautious and hemmed in by the terrible event at its center.
Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon/Orion Pictures/Lynsey Weatherspoon/Orion Pict
Until is aware of the act of watching in a way that mirrors the agonizing decision made by its main character, activist Mamie Till-Mobley, when faced with the remains of her 14-year-old son. Emmett Till was lynched in 1955 while on a trip to Mississippi to visit his cousins, murdered for interacting with a woman named Carolyn Bryant in a way she and other white people considered an affront. When her brutalized body was returned to her mother in Chicago, mutilated and swollen from being left in the river, Till-Mobley chose to hold an open funeral so the world could see what had been done to her child. Thousands of people have done so, and even more have seen the photos, and although none of the men accused of the murder have been convicted, the monstrosity of the crime has galvanized the ongoing civil rights movement.
Till-Mobley insisted people watch, but it’s Mamie herself, played by The more they fall‘s Danielle Deadwyler, which director Chinonye Chukwu directs her lens to the first time the character lays eyes on Emmett’s corpse. The scene is shot from the back of the morgue, precisely framed so that what we see is not the body, hidden by a table in the foreground, but Grandma’s distressed expression. Then, almost reluctantly, the camera moves closer, though the film chooses not to show Emmett’s ruined face, filling the screen with Granny’s instead. We watch her watch, and we watch her as she lets out a howl of anguish. The focus here is not on evidence of racist hatred, but on a woman grappling with unimaginable loss. The contradiction of Untilone that is impossible to resolve is that it is a film centered on an act of violence that has become a national symbol, but it is also a film that, as much as possible, would like to spare its audience that spectacle .
Is there a responsibility to watch? Or, more precisely, is it an abdication of responsibility to turn away? When a family member at the memorial service pleads, “I can’t watch, Grandma,” Grandma tells him, “We have to. Later, however, Grandma will look away from another kind of terrible painting, not wanting to see Carolyn (Haley Bennett) enact in court what she claims happened when Emmett walked into her store. Granny already knows what the verdict will be, as decided by a jury of other white men, and Chukwu allows Carolyn to lose focus as Granny turns her face away from the woman defaming her son. There is a cost to seeing these things, especially for audiences who are primarily supposed to buy tickets, to have trauma served as proof that these experiences mattered and are remembered and that cinema can provide a form of accountability that the era did not have. Chukwu – who wrote the screenplay with Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp – is acutely aware of how many black history films have soared to recreations of atrocities against black communities and bodies to the point where, in a promo for the film, she promised no physical violence against black people would be shown.
That’s right – when Emmett, played with a beaming smile and an irrepressible sense of mischief by Jalyn Hall, is caught, we’re only shown a shot of the outside of the barn he was tortured in and is probably dead. But Until, as a whole, while beautifully crafted, is also so stuffy that it feels like everyone involved in making it had to hold their breath the whole time. Deadwyler embodies heartbreaking dignity in the face of grief and cruelty, and Chukwu, who in his 2019 film, Clemency, persuaded a stunning performance by Alfre Woodard as a troubled prison guard, presents his performance with long close-ups and unexpected compositions. And yet the film is unmistakably hemmed in by the pressures of history. Although he avoids the familiar rhythms of the biopic, he is never able to commit to talking about Grandma’s journey as deeply as he would like. By placing Grandma’s story entirely in the context of her son’s death, Until keeps us outside of her transformation from a woman focused on her own life to a woman who believes, as she says in a speech at the end, that “what happens to any of us is anywhere in the world better be our business.”
We don’t really understand who Grandma was before her son’s murder or what she did afterward. We see her gazing down the streets of the historically black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, a sanctuary, and meeting Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole), who less than a decade later would be murdered for his work on behalf of voting rights and for overthrow segregation. And yet Grandma herself remains above all a vector of tragedy. Until wants to avoid turning his tragedy into a spectacle, but he can’t help but use his main character as a way for his viewers to gain indirect insight. The film understandably wants to testify, as difficult as it may be – it wasn’t until March of this year, after decades of failed attempts, that lynching became a federal hate crime in an act named after Emmett. till. When Until premiering at the New York Film Festival earlier this month, it was the subject of a special screening for students that was broadcast live in other states, and its ideal setting could very well be educational. It’s a movie that feels made for the classroom, though it also features the kind of ugly story that purveyors of “anti-CRT” hysteria try to banish from schools. The other side of whether we have a duty to observe what happens when people try to keep us from seeing at all.